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The Question of Style
Some thoughts on opinion journalism.


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Today I would like to speak more personally than I did yesterday or the day before. What I say will be personal in two senses. First, it will be about, and partly directed toward, those who make a living telling people what to think. The second sense will be obvious, and I will let it speak for itself.

I begin with a confession: I don’t like opinion journalism very much. There are of course many opinion journalists I respect and admire. You may rest assured that I think highly of your favorite opinion journalists; or, if you are an opinion journalist, you may rest assured that you are my favorite. (Colon. Close parenthesis.) But on the whole, opinion journalism seems to me not quite a respectable thing to write. Or at least it seems so as often written.

There are two things about the way it’s often written that bother me. Both are simple to describe but hard to correct, and both have afflicted my writing. One defect is intellectual, the other moral — though in opinion journalism, as in life, there is no sharp division.

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The intellectual defect is that we too often preach to the converted. This defect is intellectual because it undermines the rigor of our arguments. We don’t write in a way that engages the objections of the toughest critics, because we aren’t writing to the toughest critics. We don’t offer justifications that speak to the uninitiated, because we aren’t writing to the uninitiated.

I see this tendency on all sides, but it is an acute danger if your side is in power. It is a danger even if you are the farthest thing on earth from a populist rabble-rouser. When you’re out of power, you’ve got your principles. When you’re in power, you’ve got your principles — and you’ve got an audience of the powerful. You will want to address them, giving practical counsel on the exercise of power. You will want to do this because you will want to see your principles successfully applied. When the powerful stray from your principles, you will dissent forcefully, as this magazine has done frequently over the past eight years (for a nice summary of our dissents — thank you, Jonah — go here). But there will remain a risk of becoming excessively strategic, even tactical, and insufficiently philosophical. Should that happen, those who don’t already agree with you will stop listening.

The second defect is, to my mind, more serious, and it is this: Opinion journalism tends toward shrillness, mean-spiritedness, and insincerity. I feel no need to elaborate on that claim, because if you read or hear or watch even a little opinion journalism, you know what I mean.

I think the shrillness, mean-spiritedness, and insincerity of our discipline reflects the shrillness, mean-spiritedness, and insincerity of politics. Politics being what it is, I don’t expect our discipline to change. But I will say this: Barack Obama, though occasionally imperious, is a highly civil politician. He has sharp elbows — as successful politicians must — but he also has manners. He does not raise his voice. He gives an impression of earnestness and sincerity.

We could learn from this style. It is a style that resonated deeply with a great many Americans, who are in the main an earnest and a sincere people.

***

I’ll tell you who my favorite opinion journalist is. I can do so tactfully because he is dead: William F. Buckley Jr.

Anyone possessed of that much cleverness might easily deploy it predatorily, or manipulatively, or condescendingly. But that wasn’t WFB’s way, because that’s not the kind of person he was.

He wanted to have fun, and he wanted you to have fun reading him, whether you agreed or not.

And he was generous.

One aspect of his generosity was that he did not simplify himself. This was partly because he sought to influence the influencers — to make conservatism morally and intellectually defensible in the elite circles where it wasn’t. He was after converts in high places.

But he paid the masses the compliment of taking their intellects seriously. He talked to them the way he talked to everyone. He dazzled them with his never-ending vocabulary, and I think this actually helped them understand what he said: They had to make sense of it before reacting.

Another aspect of his generosity was that he listened carefully when people disagreed with him. This struck me when I observed him in conversation. He understood first and rebutted second, which meant he rebutted well.

And a third aspect of his generosity was that he was civil. He exuded civility.

I saw him embarrassed just once. I was helping him assemble a video montage of his TV appearances, and, reviewing the tapes, we came to the one occasion when his civility lapsed in public. He was being interviewed along with Gore Vidal, to whose provocations he responded by calling Vidal a name and threatening to punch him. I had seen the clip before and had even thought it cool — to my mind, Vidal was asking for it. But Bill, looking down, muttered, “We don’t need to see this,” and pressed fast-forward.

That taught me something important.

***

Will you allow me to speak even more personally?

I feel I am able to write well only to a certain kind of audience. Only when I expect that someone will read with equal measures of wisdom and compassion. These are also the qualities I wish to offer when I write. Perhaps the way for me to write best is to imagine such a person, and imagine myself in conversation with him.

Opinion journalism seems almost to forbid my writing this way. One feels one must either bludgeon the enemy to death or cynically perform tricks for the crowd. (Why “cynically”? Because the crowd rarely sees, as you do, how tenuously your argument perches atop a questionable assertion.)

What should matter to us, if we would read and write with these qualities, is a shared desire to understand our beliefs, and a shared desire to help one another. These are the ends to which the virtues of wisdom and compassion relate.

What interests us, then, is the meeting of kindly disposed minds. We pursue the truth as a way of getting to know one another, and we get to know one another in order to pursue the truth. We are on a hunt, and while our pursuit lasts — which will be as long as we do — it is its own reward. I would not hunt with someone who thought me his enemy, or whose intelligence and character I did not respect — and neither would I reason with him.

Part of hunting well is to admit it honestly when one has lost the tracks. And one thanks one’s companions for pointing them out again, insofar as this is done with kindness.

If being an opinion journalist meant going on such a hunt, then I should feel very glad to call myself an opinion journalist.



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